Ben Johnston

Remembering Benjamin B. Johnston

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It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing yesterday of composer and Professor Emeritus Ben Johnston, who taught in the School of Music from 1951 to 1986. He also earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1990. Recently, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Below is an obituary courtesy of his assistant Mike Mitchell. A fuller memorial will appear in the next Sonorities.

Benjamin B. Johnston-Composer

Benjamin (“Ben”) Burwell Johnston, composer, scholar, teacher, mentor, Navy veteran and beloved father and grandfather passed away on Sunday, July 21, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease and dementia, at his home near Madison, Wisconsin.  He was preceded by his beloved wife Betty and is survived by his daughter Sibyl, sons Ross Johnston (Michael) and Christopher Johnston (Lori), plus grandchildren Mie Inouye, Leif Inouye and Robert Johnston.

Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia in 1926, and served in the Navy from 1944-46.  He taught composition and theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign from 1951 to 1986, where he also received an honorary doctorate, before retiring with his wife to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. While there, he continued to stay in touch with his mentor, avant-garde composer John Cage, plus musicians La Monte Young, and Iannis Xenakis.  Johnston is beloved by his many students, who include such prominent musical artists as Stuart Saunders Smith, Neely Bruce, Thomas Albert, Michael Pisaro, Manfred Stahnke, and Kyle Gann, to name just a few. He also considered his practice of “just intonation” to have influenced other composers, including James Tenney and Larry Polansky.

Johnston received many honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959, a grant from the National Council on the Arts and the Humanities in 1966, two commissions from the Smithsonian Institution, and the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 2007.   His Quintet for Groups won the SWR [Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra] Sinfonieorchester prize at the 2008 Donaueschinger Musiktage.  He was further honored in 2018 when he was formally inducted as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He was feted with an honorary recital in 2018 by the Del Sol Quartet at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Unitarian Church in Madison.  Former student Kyle Gann dedicated his textbook The Arithmetic of Listening in Johnston’s honor in 2019. 

Heidi von Gunden wrote a monograph on the composer, The Music of Ben Johnston, in 1986 and Bob Gilmore edited the composer's complete writings, which were published as Maximum Clarity and Other Writings on Music in 2007 by the University of Illinois Press.  A three-part oral history covering all stages of his career is housed at the Oral History of American Music through Yale University.  Many of his musical materials are also archived at Northwestern University. Johnston’s large body of compositions was mainly published through his long and close collaboration with Smith Publications’ Sylvia Smith.  Many of his recordings, including the acclaimed 3-CD 14-year labor of the Keppler Quartet, were released by New World Music.

A celebration of life will be held in Madison at a place and time to be determined shortly.  The family requests that honorariums and memorials in Johnston’s name be made to the Ben Johnston Microtonal Scholarship at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

Read the New York Times Obituary.

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